Our observance of the famous Talmudic rule (Megilla 7b) מחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן וברוך מרדכי, that one should imbibe alcoholic beverages on Purim, has not always led to optimal results. Hatzoloh (a Jewish volunteer ambulance service) has run educational campaigns imploring us "not to get carried away on Purim" both figuratively and literally. We will explore the sources with an aim to demonstrate that this Halacha need not necessarily be a cause of serious problems.
The Biur Halacha (596:2 s.v. חייב and עד) presents an appropriate introduction to this issue. The Chofetz Chaim raises a fundamental issue. How can Chazal obligate us to drink on Purim if we find quite a few incidents in Tanach (נדב ואביהו, נח, לוט) which demonstrate the great dangers inherent in imbibing alcoholic beverages. He answers (citing the Eliyahu Rabba) that the reason is that the miracle of Purim came about to a great extent due to parties at which alcohol played a central role. Thus we consume alcohol on Purim in order to remember the great miracle brought about to a great extent by alcohol.
Biur Halacha also cites an important comment of the Meiri on this issue. He writes
nevertheless, we are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy. We are not obligated to engage in a "simcha" of frivolity and foolishness. Rather it should lead to a "simcha of enjoyment" which should lead to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us.
The Gemara (Megilla 7b), as we mentioned, presents the rule that we should indulge in alcoholic beverages on Purim. The Gemara proceeds to relate a celebrated incident. Rabba and Rav Zeira made a "Seudat Purim" (Purim feast) together. As a result of their inebriation Rabbah arose and "slaughtered" Rav Zeira. Subsequently, Rabba prayed on behalf of Rav Zeira and the latter recovered. The subsequent year Rabbah invited Rav Zeira for a Seudat Purim and Rav Zeira declined the offer saying "miracles do not occur all the time." A number of observations can be made regarding this passage.
First, the Maharsha (ad. loc. s.v. קם) comments that Rabbah did not literally slaughter Rav Zeira. Instead, it means that he coaxed him into drinking so much alcohol that it brought Rav Zeira close to death. Interestingly, the Maharsha seems to adopt the approach to Aggadta presented by the Rambam in his introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin. The Rambam asserts strongly that aggadta should be taken very seriously, though not always literally. Rav Amital once commented to this author that all of the classic great aggadic interpretaters (such as Maharal) of the Talmud adopt this view as well.
Moreover, this passage appears to link drinking on Purim with the Seudat Purim. Apparently it is not an "independant obligation" but rather part of the Mitzva of Seudat Purim. It is possible to say that the drinking at the Purim feast searves to charcterize the meal as a Purim feast. Indeed the Rambam (Hilchot Megilla 2:51), Tur and Shulcha Aruch (596) all present the rule of drinking on Purim within the context of the laws of the Seudat Purim. Accordingly, it would seem that there is no halachic accomplishment to drinking on Purim unless it is done in the context of Seudat Purim. Furthermore, the Gemara in Megilla 7b comments that if one has eaten his Seudat Purim at night, he hasn't fulfilled his obligation of Seudat Purim. Accordingly, argued Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (in a shiur at Yeshivat Har Etzion) little is accomplished, from a halachic perspective, if one drinks alcoholic beverages on Purim night.
Rishonim - Three approaches to the Rabba - Rav Zeira incident
The most important ramification of the Rabba and Rav Zeira incident is a possible rejection or limitation on the Rabbinic decree regarding drinking on Purim. There are two extreme approaches to this issue. The Baal Hamaor and Rabbeinu Ephraim cited by the Rif, both believe that the Gemra presents the Rabba- Rav Zeira incident to demonstrate that this halacha has been rescinded by the Gemara, and that it is improper to drink on Purim. On the other hand, the Rif and the Rosh cite the rule of מחייב איניש לבסומי without any reservations whatsoever. Apparently, they believe that the Gemara presents the Rabba-Rav Zeira incident merely as a cautionary note, but otherwise does not impact on the Halacha itself.
The Rambam (Hilchot Megilla 2:51) presents a middle approach. The Rambam codifies this rule that one should drink wine (see Rashi to Megilla 7b who also seems to assert that one fulfills this rule only by drinking wine) and until he is inebriated and sleeps as a result of the alcohol he consumed. The Aruch Hashulchan (596:3) explains that the Rambam believes that the Rabba-Rav Zeira incident modifies this Halacha, as the Rambam does not say he should drink until he cannot distinguish between ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן. Rather, he should drink only to the extent that it should cause him to sleep. Indeed, when he is asleep he cannot distinguish between ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן.
Shulchan Aruch and Commentaries
The Tur and Shulchan Aruch follow the approach of the Rif and Rosh and simply present the Gemara's rule that one should drink on Purim until he cannot distinguish betwen ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן. However, the Bach rules in accordance with the moderate view that the Rabba-Rav Zeira incident modifies the Halacha to limit drinking only until he becomes drowsy. The Rema presents the Kol Bo's view (which is a version of the Rambam) that one should merely drink a bit more than one is accustomed to do and will become drowsy and then unable to distinguish between ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן. The Rema concludes with the celebrated Talmudic teaching - אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים - one can do more or less as long as his intentions are focused on serving God (see, for example, Berachot 71a and Menachot 011a).
The Biur Halacha (296:2 s.v. עד) cites the Chayei Adam who limits this Halacha in a modified version of Rabbeinu Ephraim and the Baal Hamaor, " if one believes that drinking on Purim will interfere with his preforming any Mitzva such as Birkat Hamazon, reciting Mincha or Maariv, or that he will behave in a boorish manner, it is preferable that he not drink (or become inebriated) as long as his motives are proper." It is obvious that if one is driving after the Seudat Purim must refrain from drinking. In addition, both the Mishna Berura (596:5) and Aruch Hashulchan (596:5) rule that it is proper to follow the moderate view that one merely drink a bit more than one is accustomed to do. If we follow this rule as well as avoid drinking and driving, incidents similar to what happened when Rabba and Rav Zeira made a Seudat Purim, can be avoided.
The Mishna Berura, Aruch Hashulchan, and Hatzoloh ambulance service all teach us "don't get carried away this Purim."